Justin Simon's hot start led to 12-point, 11-rebound double-double as St. John's thrashed Central Connecticut to improve to 2-0 on season. (Photo by Vincent Dusovic/St. John's University Athletics)
JAMAICA, NY -- Moments after a season-opening win that showcased the massive potential that has his players thinking about an NCAA Tournament appearance, Chris Mullin brought everyone back to reality when he said his St. John's team still needed improvement in key areas, namely rebounding, in order to meet the lofty standard that has been expected in year three at the helm of his alma mater.
The battle of the boards was won four days later, while the existing pieces that have made the program that bills itself as New York's team so formidable were firing on all cylinders in a display that continues to highlight just how much the bar has been raised. However, the room for improvement remained prevalent after the final buzzer.
Justin Simon was the catalyst early and often Tuesday night, finishing the first half with 10 points and eight rebounds en route to a double-double, and Shamorie Ponds led all scorers with 21 points as the Red Storm feasted on Central Connecticut, dropping the Blue Devils by the final of 80-55 at Carnesecca Arena.
Marcus LoVett chipped in with 15 points, all in the second half, while Bashir Ahmed contributed 13 points of his own on a night where four Johnnies placed in double figures on the scoreboard. Deion Bute led Central Connecticut with 19 points and nine rebounds in the losing effort for the visitors as Mustafa Jones supported his interior partner as best he could with 13 markers.
"We have to do it as a group," Mullin decreed of the rebounding war, in which St. John's (2-0) prevailed Tuesday by a 38-29 count, with Simon's 11 caroms leading the way while Ponds fell one board shy of his own double-double. "Who gets them is not important, but we have to go get them."
Rebounds and offense were the biggest takeaways from the Johnnies' second contest of the year, the latter coming in rapid spurts throughout the night. After beginning the game by scoring seven of the first nine points, St. John's spotted Central Connecticut (0-3) a brief two-point lead with just under five minutes gone by in the first half, but a stretch of ten unanswered points that began and ended with Simon snuffed out any hope of an upset and gave the Red Storm the lead for good. When the Blue Devils drew within four points, they would get no closer, as a 20-2 run by the home team effectively put the game out of reach. A 16-0 outburst midway through the second half merely put the icing on a cake that had already been baked with the familiar flavor of St. John's transition defense, which turned 21 turnovers into 31 points by simply heeding the advice of a coach who placed ball pressure at a premium.
"Coach preaches to us to pressure the ball," Ponds revealed. "We just try to stay on them 94 feet, from both the front and the back end and to just put as much pressure on them as we can."
"It's something we've worked hard on in the offseason," Mullin elaborated with regard to the defensive exploits. "We ask our guys to get up and pressure the ball. We don't want to gamble, but we want to get up and wear them down all night. It's something we've worked on and I think we're good at it now, but we're going to get better at it."
The victory, much like Friday's opener against New Orleans, is indicative of just how strong the upside surrounding the Red Storm can be when on its best effort. But for Mullin, a Hall of Famer who is seemingly never satisfied with just being good enough, there was yet again a glaring need to do better despite the undefeated start.
"I see a lot of good play both individually and collectively," he said of the impressive beginning before taking a glass-half-full approach. "But there is a lot of room for improvement. I do see that we can be much better in a lot of areas, but we are doing some good things. We just have to understand that and keep on working. I think we've identified our weaknesses as a group, and we continue to work on them in practice so we can execute them in a game."
And with Nebraska coming into Queens on Thursday for a Gavitt Tipoff Games contest that represents the first true test for St. John's, both coach and players understand what is at stake not just in the next game, but down the line as well.
"It's going to be a physical matchup," said Mullin of the clash with the Cornhuskers, the first Big Ten opponent the Red Storm will have faced since losing to both Michigan State and Minnesota one year ago. "This is going to be the biggest and strongest team we've played so far. We have to meet that with force and then get back and play our game. We just have to go out and do what we do."
If St. John's is able to do exactly that, their star guard insists the best is truly yet to come.
"I feel like this team is really special," Ponds proposed. "Off the court, we're all together as a whole, and I think that carries over onto the court. We're confident enough in ourselves and our ability. I feel like this team is ready for the big games, the big teams, and I feel we're gonna go out there and get it done."